Friday, February 14, 2014

Restoring seats in collector cars from Europe

One of the issues to be aware of when buying "restored" cars is that the examples offered for sale were often restored with the resale market in mind.  To that end, those restorers tend to focus on the things you'll be able to see at an auction inspection.  More substantive things - such as would be revealed in a two-hour cruise - are often ignored or even deliberately glossed over.

Sellers will often take exception to my characterization, but the facts speak for themselves.  If it takes $50,000 or $100,000 to do a cosmetic restoration on a car, you can assume that a similarly thorough mechanical restoration (almost all of which will be invisible on superficial inspection) will cost at least as much again, maybe more.  Doing both will price the car well above the auction averages, which are based on superficial restorations.

You see that in "show winning" cars that have to be pushed off the field because they barely run.  You feel it in a "concours" car when you sit in the seat and it feels like you ass is on the floorboards.  That is the subject of today's essay.

Cosmetically restored seats look good but feel awful


You can't really tell if a seat is restored by looking at it.  You can see wear, obviously, and you can tell if the seat is crooked or mangled in some way.  But a seat can look perfect and still be totally worn out and uncomfortable.  How can this be?  It's simple.  People put new covers over worn out old seats all the time.  It takes far more time to redo the innards of a seat than to recover it, and the cover is what a buyer sees . . . 

Prior to the widespread adoption of foam seat pads in the late 1970s car seats were often made with a metal frame that held a steel box spring like you'd find in an old bed.  Those of you who remember vintage summer camp beds know that box springs wear out, and when they do, they just go flat when you sit on them.  

The steel box spring is often capped with burlap, which tends to crumble but is otherwise trouble free.  Above the burlap you will often find a Spanish moss or horsehair pad, and above that a felt pad and then the seat covering.  Those things provide the "look and feel" of the seat but the comfort will never be there if the box spring is collapsed.  When they get old, the burlap, horsehair, and moss also provide the brown furry dust that tends to rain down underneath vintage car seats.

Here's an example of the junk that falls out of old seats.  In this seat the box spring is so loose that the seat cover has fallen right out of the grooves in the base.



It's possible to remake metal box springs but it's getting harder and harder to find the materials.  Today, most restorers fortify those old steel springs with robust molded foam.  In these photos you can see us doing that very job on a seat from a 1964 Porsche 356.



We start by removing the seats, which is pretty easy on an old Porsche - they just slide out.  The top and bottom are separated, and the cover is removed from the base.  The frame and spring and "everything else" are in two piles on the bench.



This particular seat has good leather, and the felt and padding are pretty decent too.  We're going to tighten up the rod that forms the pleat across the middle of the seat, as shown below:

The rod

The pleat
Now we're going to trim the original padding where we'll be replacing it with foam.  We're going to install a two-inch thick dense foam pad which will largely take the place of the collapsed spring.  The spring will be compressed by the pad, which will sandwich it tightly, and the whole structure will be a lot firmer.



The pad makes the cover fit a lot more tightly, which reduces the chance it will fall apart on the car. Here's the assembled lower cushion.  On close examination, you can see it looks a bit more "full" than before we took it apart but to the average person it would look unchanged


In this car we are also installing period headrests.  Some of you will say "Porsche 356 didn't have headrests" but I offer this page from the 1965 workshop manual - which we still have in original print - which says otherwise and shows how to fit them.



Here they are, and here's the finished seat.  With the exception of the headrest I'm the first to admit it hardly looks any different.  But the difference when you sit on it is striking.






Doing over a pair of seats like this is a full day's work, maybe more.  But if you want to drive the car - as opposed to just look at it - it's time or money well spent.

The seats in 1950s to 1970s BMW, Rolls Royce, Mercedes or Jaguar are all made in a fashion similar to what's shown here, and can be taken apart and restored using similar techniques.  Sometimes you can buy precut foam.  Other times you have to cut your own with a hot knife.  Some times the inside of the cover will require repair, and that can be complex if the seat has a pattern.  The worst is when the frames have rusted because it's tricky welding sheet metal seat frames and breaks can be tough to repair.

John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, independent restoration and repair specialists in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the Porsche and Rolls Royce Owner's Clubs, and he’s owned and restored many of these fine vehicles.  Find him online at www.robisonservice.com or in the real world at 413-785-1665


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